I sit in the MR Hotel in downtown Iringa in the Republic of Tanzania. After thirteen hours of riding, the last two and a half in the dark and rain, I’m tired, worn and spent. We over shot the turn off to the center of town twice, finally climbing the hill to this cold nondescript Tanzanian outpost in the mountains. To top things off, all I wanted was a cold beer. The hotel, a selection from Lonely Planet, doesn’t serve beer nor does the restaurant. I’m in Muslim “country” and this will become more common as I head north.
The day started out much better than it ended. Our early start was compromised by breakfast conversations and long goodbyes to our friends at Mzuzu Hotel. Yesterday we tried to fill up with petrol, but all four of the gas stations we checked were dry — no gas. This morning the same story. We moved on.
Once on the road the riding was bliss. Some of the best in weeks. climbing further up and out of Mzuzu the roads were in good condition and traffic light. Passing banana, coffee and vegetable plantations noticing how nicely the villagers created pyramids with the round fruit and vegetables roadside. The road curved and winded around a raging river colored reddish brown from the rich clay soil of the surrounding hills. Bordering the Nyika National Park, a heavily wooded escarpment tumbles down from the Nyika Plateau to the river.
The river level was very high and we crossed several bridges like these.
They wouldn’t let us ride our bikes across this bridge. But it was still an adventure. In the photo above note the tree and you’ll appreciate just how high the river level is.
Obviously we were traveling in Malawi’s wet season and the force and height of the river were more than enough evidence. We stumbled upon a small village where one enterprising villager has tried to draw tourists on this route to stop and cross the river on a hundred year old suspension bridge, the Zuwulufu in Kandewe, constructed simply of bamboo and rope made from palm fronds. The water rushed under us as we swayed and carefully placed one foot in front of the other over the slippery bamboo poles. The man in his early fifties starts singing African songs as we cross, jumping up and down making the bridge swing above the water. Today the waters was only 2-3 meters from the bottom of the bridge, during the dry season our man tells us it’s more than twenty meters to the bottom of the river. Asked if the local villagers appreciate his attempts to draw visitors, he takes donations to pay for food for those that maintain the bridge, he says half the people appreciate him the other half think he’s crazy.
Traveling through perhaps the most densely populated country in Africa, Malawi can be taxing to the motorcyclists. The roads have no shoulders and the villagers all use the side of the road to get around. On bicycles, donkey carts, walking and in dilapidated vehicles. Rounding one corner along the river Ronnie scares a young girl wearing traditional colorful African full length dress and she falls smack in a huge mud puddle. Getting to here knees by the time I pass her she was following behind her man on a bicycle. As we descended back down to the lake we were treated to breathtaking views of the river winding to the lake and later passed fishing villages where the entire village was on the beach supporting the community fishing effort.
The river eventually dumps into Lake Malawi.
Traditional thatched roofs of fishing villages provided a very African backdrop to our ride from Mzuzu to the Tanzania border. Note everyone on the beach waiting to help the community fishing effort.
In Korongo I was suprised to find a sidewalk. This guy has quite a project as he must re-thatch the roof of his hut this week. Busy times along Lake Malawi.
Because there was no petrol in Mzuzu, and though my tank was nearly full on leaving, I was pushing to make the nearly 200 miles to Koronga. My reserve light popped on just outside of Chilumba where I found some black-market fuel at about 300 Malawian kwacha per liter – this is about double the normal price. Pissing and moaning while calling the roadside entrepreneurs thieves, Ronnie decided he’d risk making the ride to Koronga. His GS has a fancy gauge that tells him how many kilometers till he runs out. Me? I’ve got an amber light and an odometer. And these I’ve become intimate with over the last two and a half years. I bought five liters reasoning that they are buying the fuel at retail and transporting it 70 kilometers from Koronga. If it was me I might even charge more. The few extra bucks is well spent for peace of mind. Later Ronnie rolled in on fumes as his fancy gauge said 0 kilometers rolling into the Koronga filling station.
The border crossing was simple and straightforward on the Malawi side. Having a carnet makes the process much smoother than most borders I crossed in Central and South America. At the Tanzanian post visas were required for both Ronnie and I. Fifty bucks for the South African. One hundred smackaroos for the American. And they only accept US dollars! Ronnie had exchanged South African Rand for dollars at the border in Malawi. I had a fifty dollar bill and barely enough in kwacha to make the hundred bucks. I tried to convince the border cops to let me in at the fifty dollar price. They quoted “reciprocity” stating that for Tanzanians to get a US visa it costs $100. When I pulled out my fifty-dollar bill they looked at it and said they only accept American currency with the “big head”. My “small head” $50 was unacceptable. Calling it old, I pointed to the date on the crisp bill, 1997, and then pulled out a Tanzanian schilling in disrepair asking “now which one looks old to you”?
Just hanging out waiting for the sun.
Border stop at Malawi exit post.
At this point a young Canadian from Edmonton got in line behind us. Donning a backpack and having just spent a month in Tanzania and Uganda he was eager to tell us he just finished Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s “Long Way Down” book about their London to Cape Town motorcycle ride a year or so earlier. Dan, the Canadian, happily exchanged my “small head” $50 for a “big head” $50 as he was heading toward South Africa where exchanging these “old” bills would be easier. He also exchanged me his “Long Way Down” book for the copy of Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt” which I had just finished.
Ronnie got caught up in the process of buying mandatory insurance while my home-made ” laminated international insurance card” fooled the insurance people who told me I’d have no problem with the police. Sorry Ronnie!
The first fifty miles of riding through Tanzania winded through rich tropical banana plantations. One village every mode of transport was used for moving massive amounts of bananas. Trucks, cars, donkey and ox cars, and even carts pulled by men. Women balanced entire branches of bananas on their heads while others sat in front of stacks waiting for the next bus. Then the pineapples, balanced like pyramids as we saw in Malawi and Zambia. Adding color were a couple enterprising bicyclists who had full grown pigs strapped to the back of their bikes as they peddled along the side of the road.
But by the time we refueled in Makambaka, still more than 200km from Iringa is when our good luck ran out. Ahead of us large clouds changed from shades of grey to black as we filled our tanks. Kids gathered around our bikes as I zipped in my rain liners. It was just after 4pm. We braced for the rain.
At first it was refreshing, but as the daylight diminished and the rain thundered stronger with flashes of lightning flanking us as we rode into the storm the ride became a chore. Visibility was compromised and the road soon turned into a rolling river. In Tanzania they haven’t learned how to create a slope in the road for drainage. As such, riding becomes dangerous as several times I could feel my bike hydroplane. The rear tire was on its last legs and certainly not a match for these roads.
I was tense. Trying to ride with the visor opened buy my eyes just were pierced by the sharp rain. Closing the visor made it impossible to see. At first the road was a light grey asphalt but soon it turned to pitch black tar – providing no reflection or additional light from my weak headlight. Ronnie zoomed ahead of me as I could only move about 70-km/h and feel somewhat safe. There were no lines on the road and the tall trees just blended in with the pavement. It was hell and reminded me of the ride to Maceió in Brazil last October. About 20 minutes later If found Ronnie sitting roadside in a pool of mud. He’d had a couple close calls. At one point I was happy to find a truck rolling at about my speed. Following closely behind we got a bit of relief from the rain plus its headlights combined with the additional reflection from the back of the truck it was almost like daylight — well not quite.
When we approached Iringa the velocity and volume of the rain increased two-fold. Climbing up the rain just drained down the pavement toward us. It was like a river. As the road plateaued I soon found myself riding through a puddle that was two-feet deep. I thought I was riding a river. But I was on the main road into Iringa. That’s when I saw the frogs. Hundreds of them hopping across the road every which way. Was I in a river?
By the time we arrived at the MR Hotel we were sopped, waterlogged, tired and spent. It also had taken us nearly 5 hours to ride those 200 kilometers. And no beer.
Ronnie contemplates his next steps. Soon he’ll be in Dar es Salaam marking a milestone in his nearly three month journey.
Wet parking area of the MR Hotel in Iringa, Tanzania.
Tomorrow. Dar es Salaam. It couldn’t be soon enough.